His thoughts:on leaving Canada on Ottawa cocktail parties on Gerda the national "identity" the writer's lonely craft clever civil servants dull politicians literary show-offfs and other sundry Canadian matters
After 14 years in Canada. Nicholas Monsarrat, English - born world traveler, former diplomat and author of the best seller, The Cruel Sea, has just moved back to England. He returned there, he says, partly to look after business details in connection with his autobiography, Life Is A Four-Letter Word, and partly to work on research for other books at the British Museum. Before leaving, he talked to Eileen Turcotte in a tape-recorded interview for Maclean’s. Here are the most pungent passages from the transcript:
Monsarrat: Canadians are always astonished that anyone likes their country at all. I’m always being asked, “Why do you live in Canada — why don’t you live in Paris, or New York, or London?” But the only people who ask me are Canadians themselves — no one else. I mean, an Englishman knows instinctively why I live here, which is because 1 like it. It’s a big country, lots of elbow room, not too many people, taxes are a little . . . uh, things like that.
Turcotte: Do all Canadians have this attitude?
Monsarrat: I think it’s predominantly the English Canadians. It’s a curious thing, but the French Canadians whom I’ve met and talked to and traveled about with seem to have much more confidence in themselves as Canadians than the English do. It’s the English Canadians who are asking all the questions and in many cases it’s the French Canadians who are giving the answers — and the latter have much more of a sense of being at home in this country and its future than the English. I don’t know why that is.
Turcotte: What do you think Canadians should be proudest of in their country?
Monsarrat: Just confident in its future. This country as far as I can see really
cannot miss, unless it falls apart by self-questioning. But the idea of a continuing search for an identity I think is absolute rubbish. You don’t find an identity hy looking for it. You live it and it grows. There’s no other country in the world, I think, which questions whether it’s a viable community as this one does, and it’s really very destructive in many ways. You don’t find the Americans saying, “What’s our identity?” They damn well know.
Turcotte: If you didn’t live in Ottawa, is there any other city you’d like to live in in Canada?
Monsarrat: Well, I don’t like big cities. I find a place like Toronto has too much pressure for a writer, who should be a private person, and I don’t like Montreal for the same reason — though it’s worth going there for the food. No, I’ve lived in Ottawa which is really very small — quarter of a million people — for nearly 14 years, three as a diplomat and the rest as a private person, and I think this is the place in Canada. I think most of the brains, certainly the directing hrains, are in Ottawa.
Montreal and Toronto are both sort of show-off towns. The Torontonians think that all the brains in the country are congregated there; actually what they really mean is that a lot of newspapermen are there and a lot of socalled television personalities. A television personality is a man who wouldn't have a personality without television — there are plenty of them. But here in Ottawa you get a firstclass civil service, which doesn’t have to bother about status; all it has to bother about is being utterly free of corruption, which it is. Some of the cleverest and most forward-looking men are right here in this funny little city.
Turcotte: You don’t think the civil servant is a dull drab person?
Ottawa cocktail parties on Gerda lonely craft€; clever civil servants ^Nnd other sundry Canadian matters
Monsarrat: He is if you measure him against people in Bonanza or something like that, but this isn’t the criterion.
Turcotte: Do Canadians treat writers well?
Monsarrat: Oh no, that’s one of the best things about it. I don’t think writers should worry about how they’re treated. Certainly, they’re almost totally ignored in Canada, which is just to my taste because writing is very hard work. I have to work every day of my life.
When writers who are well known outside the country arrive in Canada they’re hot news, and when they leave they’re hot news, but apart from that they’re severely left alone. When I arrived here first as head of the Information Service my high commissioner didn't want me to make a speech until I’d been here a few months, so I’d know what was what in Canada, and the head of the Women’s Canadian Club in Ottawa called me up and said, “Can you make a speech for us next Tuesday?” I said. “I’m awfully sorry but 1 can’t for three or four months, but I’ll be available then,” and she said, “Oh, but you won’t be news then.”
1 think it’s symptomatic of this, though Maclean’s probably won’t like the idea, that when I first arrived here Blair Fraser did a very good piece on me arriving, and 14 years later when I’m leaving, Maclean’s is interested in the fact. In the meantime I might have been dead with my feet in the earth for all they cared.
Turcotte: Do Canadians take writers seriously?
Monsarrat: No, not unless they make a lot of money. But if they’re just writers they’re sort of vagabonds, how actors were thought of in England about 200 years ago. When they make lots of money they’re accepted as successful businessmen. That is my only
status in Ottawa, because it’s known I make a fairly substantial living at writing, more than most of the people I'm talking to, so therefore I’m a good chap — I’m a success, not as a writer but as a businessman. But the alternative to that is becoming someone like . . . well, the poet Irving Layton. People like that don’t make a living out of writing, so they have to slop it over into television and also to act like naughty children, attracting attention, using bad language and making outrageous statements which they don’t really believe. It’s only worth doing if you've got behind it a solid base of successful writing. Otherwise it's just like a kid in a tantrum. It doesn’t make any headway at all.
Turcotte: Do you think enough is being done for writers by the federal government in Canada?
Monsarrat: Oh, too much in a way. 1 don't think writers are the people to get handouts. I admire the Canada Council very much indeed. I wish they had more money in supporting corporations, things like orchestras and Stratford and other theatres across Canada and sending ballets on tour, that sort of thing. But there’s something about giving a writer a chunk of money which 1 feel is bad for him. He should be able to make a living without a handout. There’s one exception: I think you can commission a book of history or something like that which is obviously going to take an awfully long time and probably won’t make much money but is still worth writing. But novels, no.
There's one sort of specialist in this country, Brian Moore, who’s really missed his vocation — he should be in the fund-raising business. He’s had some books which are apparently successful, particularly The Luck Of Ginger Coffey which has been a book, a television show, a play, and is now going to be a musical. I wish that had
happened to me. But he's had to my certain knowledge two grants from the Canada Council, and one from the Guggenheim Foundation, and now a large chunk of public money is going into making the musical of Ginger Coffey. It shouldn’t be necessary; if he’s got any sort of a contract, then that’s where his income should be. If it’s not enough then he should be doing something else.
Turcotte: Do you think there are enough opportunities in Canada for writers to make a living on their own initiative?
Monsarrat: You know, sometimes
people ask that question as if the postal service hadn’t been invented. The idea that because you live in Canada it’s more difficult to make a living as a writer I think is absolute rubbish, because a book can go anywhere in about two days, and if it’s any good it will be published by a man who'll make some money for you.
Turcotte: Why then aren’t there more successful writers working in Canada today?
Monsarrat: I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t occur to enough people to be writers. Of course, this is a very bad reading country. I think it is reading which makes writers — this is the spark, at least it was for me. And this is a very bad reading country, which is rather strange because two comparable countries, Australia and South Africa, which have the same outdoor orientation, are wonderful reading and book-buying countries. I sell more books in Poland and Yugoslavia than I do in Canada, and it’s not something wrong with the books because they sell very well in about 10 or 12 different countries. But here, no. It's the damndest thing to try to make a living just with a Canadian readership. Turcotte: Do you think there is talent in Canada?
Monsarrat: I’m sure there is and I’m sure there are wonderful stories to be told. I’ve got a Canadian novel up my sleeve, but I won’t talk too much about it in case some rascal steals it from me.
Turcotte: You gave up a career in the diplomatic service to become a fulltime writer. Do you still spend much time with the diplomatic set? Monsarrat: Yes, a good deal. We know a lot of diplomats, we're on dining terms with 10 or 12 of them, and senior civil servants and some cabinet people, some politicians. These are the serious people with whom I like to spend time if I can break away from the task of supporting three wives and three children. We don’t go to cocktail parties at all because they’re such a waste of time. My idea of hell is to be in a room with a low ceiling and about 100 people. It’s the most degrading form of entertainment, I think. It's so easy. All these second-rate diplomats do it on their independence day — a day, by the way, which is usually to celebrate casting off the wicked yoke of the British. In the end they’re only entertaining each other, because most of these diplomats are greatly underemployed. I won’t mention any countries, but there are certain countries in South America, for example, whose contacts official or otherwise with Canada are absolutely minimal. They’ve got no work to do, so they spend the day in bed — who with I don’t know — and then they come out in the evening and go to four or five parties, talking to each other. They're not impressing Canadians.
Turcotte: Do you think they give a bad impression?
Monsarrat: Yes, because there's great competition to put on a show within the diplomatic corps, which is quite wrong because — I’m going back to Africa now— / continued on page 27
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some of these countries are not only inefficient and corrupt, they’re bankrupt, too. But their diplomats have to put on the dog here. There’s one that I know—I don’t think I should mention the country — but you know they’re absolutely broke, you know that if it weren’t for handouts from Britain that country would be absolutely down the drain. But here and in Washington they ride around in their pink Cadillacs. There’s an embassy here which not only bought a mansion at the vastly inflated prices which you find in Rockcliffe Park, but they had the whole garden torn up and planted with flowers in their national colors. Now this costs an absolute fortune. This is such nonsense, because anyone who knows anything about it knows this country is not like that. Very few countries in the world are.
Turcotte: How are Canadian diplomats abroad?
Monsarrat: They’re very good on the whole. The reputation of Canada abroad through its diplomatic channels is really very high — much higher than Canadians here recognize. This is another part of this absurd inferiority complex.
Turcotte: Now I’d like to ask you for some capsule comments on a variety of people and subjects. To start with — Lester B. Pearson?
Monsarrat: I’ve got a great admiration for him. I think he’s missed his vocation, which it seems to me is in the diplomatic world or the academic world. He has a very high reputation at the United Nations which has been very well deserved. But he has to worry in Canada about second-rate politicians — and that is almost all politicians in Canada — and it's such a waste of a good man and a good talent.
Monsarrat: I’m very anti-Mr. Diefenbaker. I think he’s a bloody-minded old brute and I don’t mind who knows it. I think he’s absolutely wild for power and for example is wildly frustrated that he’s not prime minister and won’t be for centenary year in 1967. Turcotte: The Munsinger case? Monsarrat: Well, that’s a pity. I can’t see anything wrong in having a love affair, but I can see something wrong in having a love affair with such a second-rate woman. I don't admire the taste of the Conservative Party in this at all. It's not important, nothing like on a par with the Profumo thing. It’s just a lot of stupid people, and if you’re stupid you shouldn’t be a cabinet minister.
Turcotte: The Truscott case? Monsarrat: This, I think, was tried in the newspapers in the first instance. It’s now being retried in the newspapers. They seem to have decided now that he’s innocent.
Monsarrat: The difference between him and Kennedy, whom I greatly admire, is so much that I think my judgment is probably clouded. I don't like people like that. I don’t like noisy Texans. I don’t like Texans of any kind. There’s no style there. There’s very little judgment. I think he’s a superb interior politician, but as for
continued on page 29
NICHOLAS MONSARRAT continued
“Teen sex? We did
it but didn’t talk about it. Now they do”
his knowledge of the world—he might belong to the Flat Earth Society. He knows absolutely nothing at all. If Vietnam is his policy then that’s a mark in his favor because I believe the Americans should be in Vietnam.
I think that if you look at the map and see what would happen if that particular part of the Far East went Communist, particularly for an Australian or a New Zealander, then you would start to get worried. They’re right to be there, and they have promised over and over again that they’re not going to stay there, and I believe them. Johnson has made that promise and I believe him. But I’d hate to have him as the head of my country. Turcotte: The B and B Commission. Monsarrat: 1 believe in it. I’m a great admirer of Davidson Dunton, whom I know quite well. I think he’s done a very good job, and the other chap, too. The idea that one shouldn’t ask questions because they stir up trouble is another example of Canada’s lack of confidence.
Monsarrat: Ah, another thing T admire. I’m sold on the CBC. This is one of the few national civilizing influences in this country. I think they do a wonderful job.
Turcotte: Your favorite author? Monsarrat: I think among living authors it’s John Steinbeck. I know him slightly. He’s a delightful man and I think a very good writer indeed. I was surprised he got the Nobel Prize and so was he, I happen to know. But I think he deserved it. He has a humanity and an understanding which I envy very much indeed.
Turcotte: Your favorite book by yourself?
Monsarrat: One called The Tribe That Lost Its Head.
Turcotte: The trait you admire most in people?
Monsarrat: Charity, I think. I hate cruelty — physical to children, mental to grown-ups. I like outgoing people, and charity covers it all. If you can’t say something nice to a person or about a person, then for God’s sake don’t say anything. It’s a miserable enough world without us scratching each other, and clawing each other, and making the blood flow. That’s another thing I dislike about Canadian politics — if they can crack a man across the skull they will do it. Turcotte: Teenagers?
Monsarrat: Well, they're much the same as we were except that we didn’t make so much noise about it. I behaved just as badly in the 1930s—sexually, politically, in every way. I was rude to my parents. We didn’t have sit-ins in those days, but 1 paraded up and down Hyde Park carrying a banner saying DOWN WITH STANLEY BALDWIN. And of course we kicked around with the girls in the same way. Turcotte: Sex?
Monsarrat: We did it. but we didn’t talk about it. Now they do it all the time and they talk about it a hell of a lot. But the act is the same, just as enjoyable, not less. One need not feel guilty about it or anything like that. But sex is a private matter, and I wish it could remain so.
Monsarrat: Well. I've been divorced twice for reasons which I don’t enlarge on. I’ve been married three times. The first marriage was a happy one but didn’t last; the second one was a miserable one and didn't last; the third one is a very happy one and is going to last. 1 believe in divorce,
obviously, or l wouldn’t have done it so many times.
Monsarrat: 1 believe in it, too. obviously. But I think that only unselfish people are truly capable of it. Loving is giving, all the time — not taking, not domination, not a sort of sexual athleticism or anything like that.
Turcotte: The ideal woman? Monsarrat: Well, there are so many different aspects of it. You can’t look for it in one woman — do not quote me to my wife.
Turcotte: The Canadian woman? Monsarrat: Well, they’re a funny lot, you know. They have this suspicion of men which you don’t find in European countries. The European woman expects to be stared at, admired, complimented in so many words, pinched if necessary. The Canadian woman,
NICHOLAS MONSARRAT continued
“Haven’t believed in God for 35 years. Doesn’t make sense”
if you give her a direct compliment — just to say how lovely you look tonight — you're as likely to get not exactly a crack across the face but a very suspicious reaction. This is the fault of Canadian men, of course, who spend three months wooing their wife even with flowers and things like that, and then once won seem never to
bother about her again in terms of raising her morale or paying her compliments or being the kind of lover they were before they were married. Turcotte: God?
Monsarrat: Don't believe, I’m afraid. I was brought up very religiously. We went to church at school every day of the week and twice on Sunday, which
is a lot of services. I love the Bible as language — it’s the most beautiful language in the world. But I haven’t believed in God for 35 years. It doesn’t make sense to me, with the world in such a mess, that there can be any planning person or planning entity behind the direction of the world. I think we are on this world
by a biological accident, and we must make the best of it. And Christian ethics are a very good pattern. Turcotte: Death?
Monsarrat: I’m not afraid of it. I’m afraid of dying. I don’t believe in the after-life at all. I think you become at a certain unfortunate time a piece of meat, and the best way to dispose of you is to burn you — or if I’m at sea I hope to be buried there. Turcotte: If you weren’t a writer, what would you like to be?
Monsarrat: Oh, a bum, T think, a nothing. Writing is the only thing I love doing in the whole world. It’s all I can do, so that’s lucky.
Turcotte: What will your next book be?
Monsarrat: Well, I’ve just finished the first half of the autobiography. Life Is A Four-Letter Word, Cassel, 42 shillings, $9.25 in Canada. Then I’m writing a sequel to The Tribe That Lost Its Head . . . the other half of the autobiography ... a book on the parole system . . . then I think a novel about Canada, the new pioneering from south to north . . . then the long historical sea novel I’ve been taking notes for since 1957. These have all been contracted for — after that I think I’ll take a rest.
Turcotte: What other plans do you have, for living?
Monsarrat: We’re going to have a trial year in England, or perhaps the Channel Islands, while I do research for the African book and the autobiography. After that, I don’t know. We might come back here, if they’ll have me after this interview. But the climate 1 find a little tough now — so maybe we’ll go to some sunnier place, like Bermuda. That’s the great thing about being a writer, all you need is a typewriter and a loving wife, and you’re in business.
Turcotte: Do you think writers should settle down?
Monsarrat: No, not really. This is one of the reasons why I’m moving on. I loathe the idea of growing roots, and I think people who grow roots go on writing the same book, like Galsworthy or like Mazo de la Roche. It’s the same book over and over again, a book about roots by a rooted person, and 1 think this is the dullest kind of a life to live. No, you must get up and go, live a new life, and then write about it. ★